Help Me, Ronda: 2018's Biggest Story for WWE by Mike Holland

There can be little argument that WWE’s much discussed and rather historic signing of Ronda Rousey earlier this year has set the stage for it already potentially being the biggest story in professional wrestling in 2018. To say that WWE has a lot tied up in Rousey and her brand before she’s even had her first match for the promotion may sound exaggerated, but in reality it’s a massive understatement. WWE officials understand this and its implications, as they’ve taken the most brutal PPV on their calendar in this month’s Elimination Chamber and turned everything into second fiddles at the Rousey orchestra. She will be “officially” signing her talent contract to appear on the Raw brand each and every Monday, and considering everything has been in a holding pattern with her since her entrance at last month’s Royal Rumble brought the house down, it’s assuredly a very big deal for Vince McMahon and his entire company, top to bottom. Whether you care about MMA or Rousey herself, this is a story you will be forced to pay attention to. And it will have very real implications not only for those already mentioned, but for you and I as wrestling fans and very likely the business itself. This is a critically important time for the sport and its patrons and participants alike.

How success or failure will be measured in this endeavor will, as usual, be left to the history books. Rarely does the celebrity side and the fighting side come together so perfectly in someone as they do in Rousey. She walks in the door armed to the teeth with both the look and the credentials to make an impact unlike anyone else. Even more rare is the fact that she is doing it because she loves the business, something she has alluded to in interview after interview. This is not a simple cash grab, but rather a detour into a different profession entirely. Whether she realizes what she loves about the business may not actually be the business is another question, but one can’t be blamed for trying. Wrestling is full of disillusioned souls who chased their dreams from childhood only to discover that their brief foray resulted in just so much tossing and turning in a restless sleep of dissatisfaction. Let’s look at some of the major questions and issues that make this signing so critically important.

Ronda Rousey confronts Asuka, Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair: Royal Rumble 2018 (WWE Network)

1) Storied History: At the top of the list for me is the question of how WWE will use Rousey in a storyline capacity starting at the Chamber. Her entrance at the Rumble added another cryptic chapter to how Vince and friends have used her so far. Rousey’s history with wrestling goes back way before she ever showed up at a WWE show, from her getting the nod from the late, great Roddy Piper to use the “Rowdy” moniker to her role in “The Four Horsewomen,” a takeoff on perhaps the best stable ever in wrestling history. This is rarified air and it is not for the faint of heart. Her overt flirtation with pro wrestling undoubtedly sat very well with McMahon, who has a lengthy history in tying his horse to the celebrity du jour. The fact that Rousey got the blessing of several legends not only served to cement her status with longtime fans jaded about another athlete slumming it in wrestling, but gave her an added dimension without any PR work having to be done by Titan Tower whatsoever.

You can trace the roots of this signing at least as far back as SummerSlam 2014, when The Four Horsewomen group was identified and recognized by the cameras and announcing team. One of the fundamental truths of the wrestling business is that you almost never recognize a talent, particularly from a competing sport, without some sort of angle payoff. Rousey’s next appearance for WWE was of course WrestleMania 31, where another front-row seating turned into an invitation from The Rock to enter the ring and face off with the Authority, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. WWE’s current mindset is to showcase a moment and let it speak for itself, as opposed to their past builds with multiple events occurring before the showdown. In this case, given that The Rock was being physically protected due to his expensive movie insurance, it was the perfect way to get the appetites going and let Rousey put Stephanie in an armbar before tossing her out of the ring to the floor.

Given that McMahon is a natural heel and very good at it, this completely worked for WWE. All of that said, it’s an odd choice given that Mrs. McMahon is not an active competitor and hasn’t wrestled regularly in more than a couple of one-offs since 2003. While WWE’s hype machine immediately got rolling with teases about a Rousey/McMahon showdown, it was left by the wayside and nothing more came of it until last month. Even more interestingly, Stephanie’s current on-air character is generally not represented as an over-the-top heel (certainly nothing like she was when Mick Foley was GM) and her presence at ringside at the Rumble had much more to do with supporting women’s wrestling than with carrying an angle. That led to an odd staredown where Stephanie appeared upset that Rousey had shown up before the two shook hands and promptly went about their day.

This sort of mixed messaging had already occurred previously, when the Horsewomen showed up at 2017’s Mae Young Classic in support of Shayna Baszler, a charter member of the group and currently signed to NXT. In addition to being shown prominently, the four actually had a staredown with the trio of Charlotte Flair, Bayley and Becky Lynch, themselves considered three of WWE’s version of the Horsewomen. Once again, it proved to be much ado about nothing, as there has been no further interaction or acknowledgement of that history. None of this is to say that there won’t be, but there appear to be multiple storyline threads that have to be tied up. Was Rousey’s handshake an acknowledgement of a stalemate with Stephanie in order to pursue one of the names mentioned above? Or was it simply to add another layer of complexity to a story that plays out with Rousey and McMahon at the top of the card?

2. The Lesnar Lesson: A tiny bit of the shine may be taken off the diamond of a UFC fighter heading to the top of the ranks in the WWE, considering that their current Universal Champion already did exactly the same thing. Brock Lesnar is actually a really good comparison to Rousey in that he’s a highly decorated athlete with significant MMA experience who made the decision to pursue pro wrestling versus continuing his current career path. The critical difference, of course, is that Lesnar had already had a five-year run with the company before he chased his other dream. Fans already knew him and his character well by the time he returned to the promotion in 2012. He also has the very critical distinction of getting to participate at UFC 200 against Mark Hunt while actively competing for Vince’s WWE. While McMahon has shared talent more times than he generally gets credit for, this was a truly notable moment given the pedigree of Lesnar and the fact that he was a champion for WWE at the time and thus risked embarrassment.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that Lesnar looked strong in defeating Hunt and silenced many critics of the decision, only to have it backfire when it was revealed that he had tested positive for clomiphene and was fined and suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. His fight with Hunt was retroactively ruled a no-contest, Hunt went on an understandable warpath in the media given the circumstances, and the WWE looked for the largest throw rug they could find in an attempt to sweep it under. Whether Lesnar unretires a second time to put a happier face on things is an open question, but it can’t have been a good time for folks behind the scenes in WWE. I don’t know that your average wrestling fan really cares about Lesnar’s testing in another sport entirely, but it unquestionably adds another layer of interrogation to wrestling and its testing standards when something like that happens. And if there’s one thing wrestling’s ongoing drug saga doesn’t need, it’s more bad press.

There is no indication that Rousey will follow a similar path, but whether she’s satisfied with the way her story ended in the UFC is another matter. In addition, Lesnar’s lucrative current deal allows him to benefit from his “big fight” status without being involved in most house shows or many televised cards. It remains to be seen how Rousey’s contract is constructed, but one would imagine that with all her other commitments and interests, it would be a similar one. Lesnar’s reign has been criticized in many corners (including this one) for putting career wrestlers in the permanent back seat in order to advance the agenda of a part-time competitor. Should Rousey understandably be elevated right into the title picture, those catcalls will only grow in both frequency and ferocity.

3. Heel or Face?: To me, this is a critical question to be answered. Rousey has epic appeal, and in the current wrestling climate it might not matter much whether one breaks a few rules or not. Her Rumble character didn’t indicate much either way, as she faced off with the current champions of both brands but didn’t do or say anything of importance to indicate the plan. That is true to form of Roddy Piper, who frequently clashed with top faces of the day due to his brash persona, but also had lengthy face runs due to his enormous popularity with the fans and ability to talk. When Piper was a heel, though, he was unparalleled, doing everything from bashing the late Jimmy Snuka with a coconut to squaring off with Hulk Hogan himself. He had no issue doing over-the-top things to get the crowd seething, and had the personality to pull it off. Whether Rousey could (or would) attempt to walk a similar road as her hero is an open question.

Given that Rousey is starting on the Raw roster, the presence of a heel champion in Alexa Bliss may have already answered this one to some degree. It also adds some confusion to the decision to have Asuka and her undefeated streak stay very intact in winning the first Women’s Rumble. Asuka must get her moment, and one would expect that moment leads to a championship reign, but Rousey’s headline appeal can’t be wasted in simple undercard bouts. Having Rousey supplant Asuka would be far more than unfortunate timing, though, as WWE was understandably and appropriately credited for their decision to have Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura get the duke in circumstances that have traditionally favored more of the domestic same.

This may be the biggest difficulty in course navigation, as it relies on the talent to embrace the material and in many cases elevate it. Choosing who will write for Rousey’s scripted segments and who will help her make it effective is a very big deal. Rousey’s current persona allows her to be of few words, and that’s calculated. In a business where an equal amount is tied up in the verbal sparring, though, it can’t possibly last for long. This isn’t a question that has to be definitely answered, as characters flip on a dime in wrestling, but the initial choice is a critical one nonetheless.

4. Triple H: There has been much discussion about the ongoing reallocation of power from Vince to his son-in-law, and McMahon’s semi-puzzling decision to reboot his failed XFL has caused many to feel he’s as close to being okay with parting with some of the responsibilities than ever. That fits with the signing of Rousey, which by all accounts was a brokering between her and a group headed by Hunter. Vince’s decision to hand notorious boxer Mike Tyson a $3 million paycheck to be special enforcer at WrestleMania XIV shows you quite clearly that nothing is more important to this group than grabbing the headline. To his credit, Tyson performed his role admirably and kept things under control to the point where his inclusion was not just a brilliant marketing strategy but one of the most effective major storyline developments of the decade. Rousey doesn’t have to compete with that level of inspection, but I’d wager that some of these thoughts were in the heads of Hunter and his cadre when they lined up pursuing this relationship.

Should this be a case of something Triple H is actively pushing for, much of the success or failure of this attempt will rest on him. To his credit, Levesque has by all accounts made substantial inroads with both women’s wrestling and the NXT promotion, and this could be the feather in his cap that ultimately allows Vince McMahon to feel comfortable taking a significant step back to allow for a new generation of leadership. Should the attempt to integrate Rousey struggle, however, one could quite easily since Vinnie Mac doubling down and using it as impetus to get even more involved than he has in the past.

5. Celebrity Factor: Rousey is a media machine unlike any celebrity to ever compete regularly in WWE not named The Rock. In addition to everything mentioned above, she’s being searched on Google another hundred times or so in the time it took you to read this article. She was polled one of the best female athletes ever on ESPN, she’s been in the Maxim Top 100, she made the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue, and she has a burgeoning movie career including roles in The Expendables 3, Furious 7, and the upcoming Road House remake. From hosting Saturday Night Live to many commercial endorsements, she is immediately recognizable to most.

While competing in WWE doesn’t necessarily curtail your other interests, particularly now when they have so many media irons in the fire, it’s well known that the company prefers investing in their own endeavors. Should Rousey’s flirtation with wrestling not turn into a full romance, there are ample things which could occupy her free time and provide a steady income indeed. While all of these various roles benefit WWE on the surface, as they potentially increase both interest and viewers, they could also prove to be a distraction to her while she deals with what by all accounts is a very tough business indeed. Rousey’s ability to simultaneously curate and add to her own celebrity while performing in something most mainstream media doesn’t take very seriously or hold in any type of high regard will be tested to say the least.

In addition to all of the above points, we are at a seminal moment in women’s wrestling, certainly within the WWE. While the company often likes to pat its own back for achievements, there can be no question that they have made substantial gains in this area of late and they are to be commended for that. Rousey’s entrance, then, comes at a point when her success or failure can have a huge impact on not just her but an entire roster of female talent. This is not a character the WWE needs to create, but more one they have to properly shape to appeal to new fans while drawing on her substantial amount of existing ones. Should Rousey be even half as effective in doing so with the WWE as she did in the past, the importance of the next few months cannot be stated enough.

I have no doubt that many more stories will present themselves between these early infant days of 2018 and the end of another year in wrestling. I am equally certain, however, that all will pale in comparison to this one. This is THE story for WWE, and we should make no mistake of that. Navigating these potential traps and land mines could not be more critical for the company. Rousey is the type of talent that comes along very rarely, and she has the unique and perhaps singular opportunity to redefine what we think of as professional wrestling and her own role within that. Dovetailing it to the rebranding of women’s wrestling in WWE is expected and a natural fit. Actually pairing it correctly and changing the minds of the fanbase is another task entirely. This is a very big deal, and it begins in earnest this weekend. Enjoy the ride.

Feel free to leave your thoughts below, and as always thanks for reading.

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell

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